Below the surface
By Amy Reiswig, April 2014
Displacement—whether by prostate cancer or hydro development—is the powerful, subterranean theme of Aaron Shepard’s new novel.
Sometimes it’s easy to ignore what you can’t see. Out of sight, out of mind. But the unseen can still exert tremendous force. Take, for instance, grief, anxiety, memory, hope. Such unseens can wrench us out of all comfort, safety, even sense of self. In his debut novel, When is a Man (Brindle and Glass, April 2014), Victoria writer Aaron Shepard explores how you grapple and adapt when much of what you’re wrestling with is hidden from view, below the surface.
Set in the fictional Immitoin Valley, the book centres on Paul, a 33-year-old stalled ethnography doctoral student recovering from prostate cancer surgery. Paul takes a temporary job tagging trout at a remote riverside camp. Here, he discovers the history and still-powerful emotional legacy of the hydro dam reservoir’s drowned town—no fiction when it comes to BC’s past and, quite possibly, its future. Whether it’s a spawning river, a community’s collective memory, or one’s own body, Shepard looks at how the complicated beneath-the-visible bubbles up, bringing questions of identity and the necessity of dealing with the submerged. In this novel, the notion of surface tension extends far beyond the water.
As Paul travels into the bush, he is first focused on his own losses—of sexual potency, academic drive, confidence, and general sense of manhood and purpose.
The illness of prostate cancer is a mystery beneath his own skin, and the loss of something deep inside his body has made Paul a stranger to himself. “At the edge of a vineyard outside Keremeos, he leaned against a fence and massaged his perineum while he dribbled urine into the sagebrush and wiped frustrated tears from his cheeks. Each stop was a battle between churning, sobbing brain and spastic detrusor muscle that clenched in search of the prostate gland. The body alien to its damaged self, the mind shamed by passing traffic, quick stares.”
Paul’s story of self-estrangement, sadness and, ultimately, rediscovery of both sex and self is incredibly intimate and sometimes difficult to read, but Shepard handles it with directness and even humour. “As a male, it’s easy to get anxious about it,” he tells me, noting that his immersion in the research of blogs and online forums has made him more aware of the fragility and mystery of our bodies. Not yet 41, Shepard admits that “As you get older you think about: What are you going to accept, what are you going to fight against, and how does that define you?”
Paul is therefore the perfect parallel for the story of the displaced community. When the Immitoin Valley was flooded as part of a dam construction, much more than a town was lost. Residents, forced to relocate, did so under threat and even violence, and questions linger 40 years later about the fairness of allocation of new lots and compensation. Rumors still rumble of bullying, house burnings, suicides. What’s lost is not just fruit groves and buildings but trust, a sense of community, of home. While it’s not a term used here, others have called it domicide, and the losses it brings fester like another kind of illness.
Paul’s observation that “Generations of the displaced happily drive their motorboats over the submerged foundations of their own history” suggests some can and do move on. But the body of a man pulled from the river is a mystery hinting that others can’t. And so, like Paul’s story, the story of the forcibly relocated residents is also about a changed landscape, both external and internal. “It’s about what you choose to do,” Shepard tells me, “with what you have left.”
“Those of us in the city are used to the cityscape changing,” Shepard says. “But losing a whole community—it’s not just nostalgia,” he emphasizes. “For them, it’s: ‘That’s who we were.’”
That’s a contrast he knows about. An intellectual outdoorsy guy from the Shuswap area who has worked a number of resource-sector and conservation jobs across the province, Shepard gave up his chainsaw for a keyboard at age 30, moving to Victoria to pursue his calling as a writer and adding a BFA and MFA from UVic’s Writing Program to his Recreation, Fish and Wildlife Technologies diploma. He won The Malahat Review’s 2005 Far Horizons Award for Short Fiction and has published in Prism International, Fiddlehead and TouchWood’s 2009 anthology Nobody’s Father. Even before his move to the city, though, Shepard was reading and writing madly, his short fiction winning prizes in Ripple Effect Press’s BC Alternative Writing and Design Contest and appearing in subsequent anthologies.
Shepard blends his great love for and experience of rural BC communities with the freedom of fiction, resulting in a book that deals head-on with specific BC issues but isn’t bound by specific BC history. Rather, Shepard creatively combines his own personal concerns with knowledge and research from a variety of very real events. For example, mention of the Arrow Lakes and Lake Koocanusa, the WAC Bennett dam on the Peace, and the Columbia River projects remind readers of BC’s history of people displaced by hydro development. We’re also reminded that it’s a global issue, as we read of “the fifty-thousand Gwembe Tonga relocated to make way for the Kariba Dam” and “the orange groves drowning beneath the Yangtze River.” References to Site C implicate plans for projected hydro development as well, and Shepard does see the book as part cautionary tale for future construction. “You can’t change history, but you can extend it into the present with the consequences,” he says. Consequences that reach deep beneath the surface.
“As an outsider, you can go to these places and not know. It’s there—a subtext but not part of the conversation,” Shepard explains to me. He’s trying, through this book, to jumpstart that conversation. Shepard also hopes his raw, honest look at male sexuality and constructed ideas of masculinity will encourage con-versation about prostate cancer and about self-acceptance, patience and respect—another set of powerful unseens—that we could do well to extend to one another and ourselves.
So much of When is a Man is about what lies beneath. And what lies beneath the narrative is the advice Paul offers when asked to speak at a town meeting: “You have to be careful with people.”
When is a Man will be launched at the Copper Owl, 1900 Douglas St, April 9 at 7 pm. Shepard will also be reading with M.A.C. Farrant and Margaret Thompson at Russell Books on April 15, 7 pm, and at the Salt Spring Public Library on May 23 at 4 pm.
Before reading this book, writer and editor Amy Reiswig hadn’t thought about what happens to the graveyards of communities drowned for development and realizes that there is much the unaffected never hear or think about.